I readily admit I’m not a big hip hop fan—probably because I’m of the generation that watched in awe as the Beatles sang on our black and white TVs. Yes, older than dirt. And yet I can’t get enough of the score of Hamilton. The lyrics are brilliant, the beat enticing, and the characters of the Revolution are brought to life in new and three-dimensional ways. I can’t wait until tickets are accessible to mere mortals!
But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to use the phenomenon with young people now. The show presents history in its adult complexity, which means the whole show is not entirely appropriate for elementary school children (see below for elementary-friendly options). For them you’ll need to either be very selective about what you use, or just wait for high school. For older students, particularly for those for whom the story of the American Revolution seems old-hat, Hamilton can make history new. It can also provide engaging creative writing activities, literary analysis, and lessons on what it takes to take on “Big C” creativity. Consider a few of these ideas.
- Of course the first question in any history class is how closely the musical parallels historical events. Fortunately, there is no shortage of primary sources—in fact, the problem is one of sorting through the abundance. The National Archives has The Hamilton Papers online, in chronological order. Choosing a few from representative time periods can provide a glimpse into Hamilton’s world. The Library of Congress also has web guides that link to primary sources. Particularly for students with strong interest in history, these are easy places to explore and raise many more questions than they might answer. Which is what history should do!
- Another fascinating source for historical notes and literary commentary is the Hamilton Website. All the lyrics are presented with Genius annotations, which means you can click on a particular song, then click on each line for annotations. Some annotations are historical, some are commentary on rap allusions, others are links to additional documents. They are created by fans all over the globe so, like Wikipedia, they need to be checked, but they make the already-rich experience of the lyrics even more so. It is possible that your students might add to the annotations, but even better, what if students created their own rap (or other musical form) lyrics for a different historical event, then created the annotations to document why the lyrics are appropriate?
- The creation of Hamilton can also give a glimpse into the creative process—particularly the courage and tenacity necessary to bring a new genre into existence. The best view of the process—and one that gives a sense of the length of it, is the PBS documentary Hamilton’s America. Unfortunately, it is hard to show something nearly 90 minutes long in school. For now, here’s the trailer
PBS also has a wealth of resources for teachers using the documentary. If you want to see the whole program, the link above should take you to the full version. Perhaps you can find a way to use bits of it, along with some of the many online interviews with creator Lin Manuel Miranda, to help students envision the 7-year journal from beginning to Broadway. Here’s one from Smithsonian Magazine to get you started.
As an extra treat, the Hamilton Apocrypha give a sense of the things we never see—early versions, cut songs, and a riff on Sweeney Todd that will delight anyone who knows both shows.
4. Don’t forget to look online for many more options. Think about how other types of debates could be shaped after hearing Hamilton’s rap battle. Here are some good elementary-friendly activities from Library School Journal. And here’s a list of resources and video clips that even includes a Spanish language version for ELL students or Spanish language learners.
Whatever you choose to use, don’t miss hearing Hamilton yourself. Even this old-school Beatles lover says you won’t regret it.